The ‘Kosher’ Signs
Re'eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17 )
The Torah outlines the two signs required for kosher animals – chewing the cud and having split hooves. It lists some of the animals that have one of those signs but not the other. However, the commentaries note that the order of the verse is difficult to understand: The verse mentions three animals that do not have split hooves but do chew the cud, thus it would seem appropriate to first mention the sign that cause them to be non-kosher first and then the kosher sign. However, instead the Torah says that one may not eat these animals because they chew the cut but do not have split hooves, but it would have made more sense to reverse the order, or at least to say, that one may not eat these animals even though they have one kosher sign. The Torah does the same thing with regard to the pig, that does not chew the cud, but does have split hooves.
Why, then, does the Torah list the kosher signs of these animals first if the non-existent signs are the only ones that we really need in order to label these animals non- kosher?
A Midrash explains that the Torah is trying to teach us that even when something is not kosher, we should find a way to mention something praiseworthy about it first.(1) Even something as ‘treif’ (not kosher) as a pig deserves to have its positive trait pointed out.
This teaches a fundamental lesson in inter-personal relationships, in general, and in particular, how to criticize or rebuke people. There are times and situations where it may be necessary to criticize a child, student, employee, friend or neighbors – we learn from this Midrash that even when we have to deliver a negative message to others — to tell them that they are "non-kosher" in some way — we should always find a way to point out their positive attributes or qualities first.
Why is this so important? The first reason is simply that if one precedes the criticism with praise, then it is far more likely that the person will accept the criticism, because people generally do not like being criticized and will be placed on the defensive. Moreover, when a person is criticized, it is not necessarily apparent that the person offering the criticism is doing it out of a sense of love for his fellow, and sincere desire that he improve, rather it may come across as simply a non-caring attack (indeed unfortunately this can sometimes be an accurate impression). However, if the rebuker can convey that he cares about the person and sees his positive traits, then the receiver is far more likely to accept the criticism and not resent the person criticizing.(2) In this vein, the Biur Halacha cites the Sefer Chassidim that it is forbidden for a person to rebuke someone whom he does not well, because the person will likely come to hate him.(3)
Another reason why it is so important to precede the criticism with praise is for the sake of the person offering the criticism himself – so that he does not become a person who focuses on the negative traits of a person and forgets their inherent goodness. This is also one reason why rebukes and criticisms should be kept to a necessary minimum, and in this vein, some parenting experts recommend a ratio of 4 positive comments to 1 negative comment.(4)
The following story offers a dramatic example of the benefits of a rebuke preceded by praise. Rav Yechiel Spero writes that as a boy his class would sometimes play baseball under the guidance of their Rabbi. He admits that he would sometimes get a little over-competitive and yell at his friends for their perceived mistakes. On one occasion, the Rabbi called him over and started listing many praises of young Yechiel. After that list, he said that it’s pas nischt, - ‘not appropriate’, for such a wonderful boy to speak to his friends that way. Rabbi Spero suggests that many of the praises were not even true, but he remembers the immense positive effect of this conversation – the praise surely had as much or even more benefit than the criticism, and the criticism succeeded because it was done with such care and positivity.
It is important to add that this lesson does not only apply to rebuke, rather any time a person does something such as a piece of homework, an exam, a speech, a performance etc, his fellow should be very careful before criticizing the person’s performance in any way – but if he does see a benefit in doing so, it would be far more effective, and kind, to first praise some aspect of what the person did before launching into the critique. May we merit to utilize positivity in all our interactions with friends, students and children.
1. Cited by Rabbi Yissachar Frand.
2. One may ask, that there are stories where great Torah scholars strongly rebuked students without also praising them – in this case, it would seem that the love that the teacher had for his students was so strong and well-expressed, that it was clear to the students that the teacher had pure motives.
3. Biur Halacha, Simun 608, Sif 2, Dh: Chayav lehochicho.
4. In this context, a negative comment is not only a criticism but also an instruction.